Pre-Service and Inservice Professional Development Papers (open access)

Teachers and teacher educators are facing great challenges teaching during this worldwide pandemic. With many conferences either cancelling or postponing their events, these sources of ideas and best practices are not available when critically needed.  

SITE-Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education shifted its spring conference to an online event this past April and which featured many timely sessions on the challenges of teaching during the pandemic. I keynoted this conference on the topic of making, hands-on, and PBL during this crisis.

In order to support teachers and teacher educators around the world who are working through the COVID-19 crisis, a collection of papers, many from the conference, documenting best practices have been published in a special issue of SITE’s flagship Journal of Technology and Teacher Education (JTATE).

This JTATE Special Issue highlights numerous and varied efforts by teacher educators, researchers and practitioners across the globe as they rapidly responded to remote teaching and learning.

View this special issue

Creativity and making

What is the connection between creativity and making? Is all “making” creative? Is creativity expressed solely through these types of experiences? Do maker experiences give kids the chance to be creative and a structure to be creative within? Are we just parsing words?

I don’t want to spend time with dictionary definitions, suffice it to say that in everyday English, while creating is a synonym for making, they aren’t the same. Creativity is about imagination and ideas, the ability to make and think about new things in new ways.

Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn. We can look to giants of education like Piaget who said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” or Maria Montessori, who honored the child’s intellect expressed through play, or hundreds of other really smart people from John Dewey to Mr. Rogers. We can make schools places where these powerful ideas come to life.

In recent years, we’ve ignored a lot of this simply because it’s more efficient and cheaper to ask kids to sit quietly while a teacher lectures. The problem is that’s not how people learn. And in a blind pursuit of the false goal of “rigor”, we’ve pushed this nonsense on younger and younger students, and then complain that kids aren’t creative!

I think the interest in the maker movement is hopefully a return to our senses that children learn best by doing, by diving deeply into ideas that interest them, exploring interesting things, and being surrounded by people who care about them and want to explore interesting ideas with them. Creativity and making are deeply intertwined. But simply having children touch things other than pencils is not what “making” should mean. When we talk about making in schools, hopefully creativity and learning are coming along for the ride.

Connecting creativity with making has multiple benefits for schools:

  • Rejecting the idea that creativity is something that happens after the “real work” is done, like decoration.
  • The ideal of “openness” is powerful and modern. Students can share designs, code, and ideas and remix into their own inventions. Modern creativity means understanding how to share things with the world.
  • The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and materials can be easily learned and used by students to make subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. Creativity can be expressed in lower risk, lower stakes ways.
  • The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. Constraints are not impediments to creativity, in fact the opposite is true. Creativity comes in making do, making it up, and making it happen.
  • The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. Students who are worried that they are not creative or artistic need more opportunities to show what they know.
  • The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do. Creativity is enhanced when the whole community is excited and engaged. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we overplan every bit of work that they do. I think the message of the maker movement is a reminder for teachers to allow for more student agency, including more time. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure” – a painter is not fixing the painting, or failing and correcting, but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.

So if this connection between creativity, making, and learning isn’t new, why all the fuss?
Part of this is human nature. We love new things and new ideas. It’s a terrific instinct to keep things fresh and enthusiastically embrace the future. However, that falls apart when the focus jumps from one shiny object to the next. Educators are rightly skeptical of the latest fad that comes and goes with the wind. A few meetings, plans that never get implemented, boxes of cool stuff that go directly from the loading dock to the supply closet… and then some other initiative careens into view and the process starts over again.

With the maker movement being seen as the “new new” thing in education, it’s a worry to think that this is simply part of the hype and hide cycle. I do see signs of this—teachers being told to “do maker” without any changes to schedules, materials, resources, or even time to collaborate with their colleagues about what this actually means. It’s human nature to believe that there is a magic wand out there that will make hard work unnecessary. One only has to look at the diet or beauty product industry to understand how desperately people want fast and easy change. Unfortunately, this is a shortcut to nowhere that will never result in real change.

In any implementation of new practices to make schools better, there are always a wide range of results. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.

In the best of all worlds, students are doing challenging and creative work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered educators. However, this requires time and trust that teachers can learn to create these experiences, and trust that students are learners with good ideas of their own.

The most important part of creativity is trust in the creative process and the creative instincts of humans of all ages. That should be a fundamental part of making as well.

On the side of kids

The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail interviewed me for an article about schools and the Maker Movement in Vancouver. The Maker Movement in schools has students learning by doing by Anne Casselman and Paul Attfield really captures the excitement of many different classrooms integrating design, technology, and making.

“We want to turn little kids into little creative minds,” says interim head of school Susan Groesbeck. “This is the opposite of rote learning.”

“We want to be one of the schools that has this, not as a frill or as an add-on, but really integrates it into the curriculum. The children are going to be excited and so super challenged.”

Ever since the Maker Movement got going in the early 2000s, it was a matter of time before the tech-oriented DIY movement’s philosophies were adopted into the classroom, as teachers and librarians saw the value of creating dedicated tinkering spaces, known as makerspaces, for students.

“For a lot of the history of school, we’ve kind of done this rote memorization and standardized testing as a means of providing an efficient [education] system, all the while ignoring the fact that it’s not how most people learn,” says Sylvia Libow Martinez, co-author of the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

“What’s good about the Maker Movement is it’s helping teachers find their own voice and be able to articulate what’s right about education in a way that makes sense in the modern world.”

“We really want kids to leave here feeling that they are problem finders and problem solvers. We don’t know what the problems are going to be in the future. We don’t know the technology these students are going to be using, so it’s not about coding for the sake of coding, or teaching saw skills for the sake of being able to saw,” says Andrea Ryan, the school’s learning specialist for design integration. “It’s that sense of empowerment to be able to go forth and be and do.”

“Strong research suggests that messing around is not wasted time and that it’s actually what the brain needs to both relax and concentrate on important aspects,” says Ms. Martinez, who stresses the difference between handing children a bunch of app-laden tablets and what happens in educational makerspaces, where children are in charge of technology.

“If you’re just going to replicate the most rote, the most boring parts of school on a computer screen, that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Ms. Martinez explains that the technology unto itself is not equivalent to teaching. The distinction between having children in charge of the technology, and children passively consume it is key, as identified by the late Seymour Papert, pioneer of educational technology and MIT Media Lab professor.

“One of [Dr.] Papert’s seminal questions is: Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child,” she says. “And you have to know which side you’re on.”

Read the whole article – there’s more!

Invent to Learn a “Must Read” for Modern Educational Change Leaders

coverModern Learners just released a free whitepaper, 8 Must Read Books for Modern Educational Change Leaders. We are honored to have Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom appear alongside the other featured books from Seymour Papert, David Perkins, Seymour Sarason, and many more.

“Sylvia and Gary’s book became an instant classic that in a short time has influenced classroom practice around the world. While on the surface, Invent to Learn seems to be a book about the nascent Maker Movement that has gained great popularity in recent years, this is more a book about how to create opportunities for deep and powerful learning for kids that is amplified by technology. Building on the work and ideas of Seymour Papert, this is one of the few books that situates real learning in a fully modern context.”

Modern Learners, a global online community headed by Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson, features podcasts, courses, and a platform for educators to join in conversations about changing the practice of school.









Literacy Beat interview

Meet the Influencer: Sylvia Martinez

Literacy Beat just posted a blog interview in which I answer two questions:

What tips or advice might you offer to teachers who want to be advocates for learning through literacy in the digital world?

I think that it’s important for teachers to keep an eye on what’s happening outside of school, not just in the digital world, but in the world at large. The Maker Movement, for example, is a trend that is going to change the world, possibly as much as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a trend that speaks to how people learn and solve problems using new technology-based devices and networks. The implications for education are immense… (Read the rest!)

What significant event in your life changed the focus of your work?

Right out of college I was an aerospace engineer. I mostly worked with people who were a lot like me – good at school, mathematically and logically oriented. But when I moved to software game development, I met different kinds of engineers and programmers. Most of them did not have formal computer science degrees, many had not finished college, and a few had not even finished high school. Many of them were told – as early as middle school – that they couldn’t learn computers or take advanced science classes because they were “bad at math” – and “bad at math” typically meant they were bad at doing what teachers told them to do. …. (Read the rest!)

No problem with Kohn

Dear Jennifer,

I read your post today called The Problem with Kohn after you tweeted a link to me. Thanks for the shoutout, and your flattering suggestion that I should have been one of the people mentioned by Alfie Kohn in his recent Washington Post article on educational technology featured in Valerie Strauss’s column on education issues. I appreciate that you are sensitive to women being usurped by men as role models, spokespeople, and advocates.

However, I respectfully disagree with the premise of your article, that Kohn is not qualified to speak about educational technology, and that his article is an example of sexist “mansplaining” — insulting and bypassing women advocates/critics of educational technology. * will give Kohn a “boost” of good publicity as a critic/advocate of educational technology, when there are better people to make the case, including those underrepresented in the conversation.

You say “Kohn, a non-expert on technology in schools was treated as an expert in technology in schools.” In contrast, the article exactly reflects his expertise, that technology exacerbates other trends that are wrecking schools. He wrote that technology is being used as a Trojan Horse to facilitate standardized testing (and standardized teaching), and being used in ways to allow big companies like Pearson to sell their “personalized learning” systems that are not  personal or about learning. Schools and parents are being sold this pack of lies as “modern” and providing kids access to computers. Alfie Kohn is correct. This is dangerous, self-serving nonsense.

In addition to being right on this issue, I admire his fearlessness and consistency over the decades. Kohn has stood up not just against conventional wisdom (homework = rigor), but also to giant corporations who stand to lose billions of dollars if their shameless exploitation of children and teachers is impeded. He has stood in the national spotlight for decades against politicians who use fear and junk science to advance agendas that ultimately deprive us of our full rights as citizens.

Kohn is not someone who simply “self-identifies as an expert on parenting and education issues.” He’s likely the world’s most read and cited expert on these issues. You may not agree with it, but his research is impeccable. His books are best-sellers and written in a way that makes difficult issues clear for a general audience. He gives voice to teachers struggling to do what’s right for children. I read his work and pray that I would ever achieve anything near his mastery of the written word.

When a parent or educator reads books like Punished By Rewards (1993)  or The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), or The Homework Myth (2007), they immediately understand the right thing to do, even if it’s the hard thing to do. Maybe you still give an occasional time out, or don’t opt your kids out of tests, or struggle with completely dropping homework, but for a lot of parents and teachers what he says makes sense and opens your eyes in new ways. They certainly did for me.

Of course he’s not the only one who has been a long-time advocate for real learning. Kohn mentioned my writing partner, Gary Stager, as a critic of educational technology. That’s true, and was true for at least a decade before I ever learned to pronounce the word “pedagogy.”

But it’s not the whole story to simply call Gary a critic.

When I met Gary in 1992, one of the first things he shared was an article of his called “Integrated Learning Systems: The New Slavery.” Please read this article. It touches on educational equity, corporate mendacity, the idiocy of “learning” being about delivering content, teachers being deprofessionalized and devalued, and more. Now remember this is 1992 in the era of the first President Bush – well before our current crop of education reformers, No Child Left Behind, Khan Academy, “ed-trepreneurs”, or Silicon Valley types thinking they can fix education with a weekend hackathon. In the same year that Michelle Rhee graduated college, well before she ever envisioned taping children to their desks, much less “reforming” education, Gary was working in schools teaching programming to kids (and their teachers). And not because the kids might get a job, but because it was their right to have agency over the computer, the most powerful invention of our lifetime.

Honestly, before I met Gary I had never given it ANY thought to the idea the school system was biased towards certain kinds of students, because I WAS that student.  Gary introduced me to a whole new way to think about learning, and also to great thinkers like Seymour Papert. My learning journey began when I started to read people like Alfie Kohn and Seymour Papert, and yes, Gary Stager.

This summer, Gary and I will lead our ninth annual summer institute for educators called Constructing Modern Knowledge. Our first year, Gary convinced Alfie Kohn to be our keynote speaker. Why have Kohn speak at an event about creativity and computing? Because his expertise allows him to see the difference between computers used to do standardized testing and computers used, as Gary often says, “to amplify human potential.” Not only did we invite Kohn to reinforce this important distinction, but also to show him that there were uses of computers that met this high bar, and that there are teachers who are ready, willing, and able to take this back to their schools and make it happen.

The secret agenda was that Kohn would experience the difference, and use his immense communication skills and his national stature to help millions more people see this distinction. Maybe it worked!

The current popularity of the maker movement in education (and our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) is a sign that this is truly possible. We can change school, we can make them better places for learning, but only if we stand up to politicians, plutocrats, and corporations who insist that kids simply need to be plugged into learning systems set on stun. We need national figures like Alfie Kohn on our side for this to spread beyond the “educational technology” camp.

Along with Gary, Kohn mentioned three other educators, all of whom have interesting lenses through which they view and critique educational technology.  Emily Talmadge has been doing great work in pulling the covers back to reveal the slimy politics and business practices of the school “reform” movement. She stands on the shoulders of giants like Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Stephen Krashen, Roger Schank, and many many more who have been writing about these topics for years.

Will Richardson who writes passionately as a teacher and parent, and Larry Cuban as a researcher have both had long careers communicating the nuances of what constitutes good (and bad) learning with technology. These four people represent four interesting and worthy perspectives to recommend to readers of The Washington Post.

So Jennifer, should Valerie Strauss have asked someone else to write that article instead of Alfie Kohn? No! She should ask LOTS of people, men and women — teachers, advocates, researchers, parents, and anyone who can make a compelling case to write about the issue. She has in the past. Her column offers a rare national spotlight on progressive perspectives countering the well-funded education reform advocates. By featuring Alfie Kohn to articulate the harm caused by computerized testing, she’s doing us all a big favor.

Should I have been on Kohn’s list instead of them? I don’t think so. I’m not doing that “woman thing” saying oh shucks, I’m not worthy. I aspire to have the reach and influence someday of any of these people, and if I keep working and writing and talking about these issues, I might earn it.  I think I’m doing a good job and I’m getting better at this.

I do not support a call to ignore Alfie’s credentials or deny him his due national spotlight because he’s a man. And the list of people he mentioned, three men and a woman, are due their respect too.

* I changed this because Jennifer Binis and several people on Twitter pointed out that her article really wasn’t about “mansplaining”, and I see their point. However, I don’t agree with the “boost” argument. Alfie Kohn is a national bestselling author, if anything, the boost goes the other way, Valerie Strauss gets a boost for her column.

TalkingSTEM interview (part 2)

Part 2 of an interview I did with Koshi Dhingra on her blog, TalkingSTEM:

Conversation with Author of “Invent To Learn”

KD: School leaders, interested in providing opportunities for students to participate in the maker movement, often feel that they need a large influx of funding or of time or of appropriately qualified faculty before they can do so. What would you say to them?

We wrote a chapter about this in Invent To Learn to help school leaders “make the case” for making in the classroom. It’s not dependent on funding, but DOES need commitment to change the status quo. That means leadership that includes faculty in what these changes entail, and how it’s going to happen. Leadership is about vision, getting people on board with the vision, and making it their own. This takes time and persistence, not money. I’ve said before that “Making is not a shopping list or a special place, it’s a stance towards learning.” Creating a school culture where that stance is normal and expected in every classroom, lab, and learning space is what is needed.

KD: Many school administrators feel that the maker movement is for those settings that either brand themselves as STEM learning spaces (such as science museums, STEM Academies, or STEM-specific clubs) as opposed to schools aiming to provide a wholistic education that spends time and energy on the humanities. What would you say to them?

Although it seems obvious that the “low hanging fruit” of the making in education movement is STEM, I think it’s broader than that. The goal of all classes should be that students do work that is authentic, with real goals and a real audience as much as possible. If you want kids to learn grammar, they need to be asked to write things that they are proud to edit properly. It’s not that writing is old and boring and 3D printing is the wave of the future, that’s not my point. It’s that if you have interesting materials for all students to use in many different ways, you also have the opportunity for students to write instructions, make videos, learn about the history of things they build, or share their creations with others.

KD: Your list of resources to explore in Chapter 14 of Invent to Learn is impressive. I know I am going to be looking at the cardboard category carefully. How did you create these lists?

Gary and I have been working with a lot of schools and running professional development for teachers for many years. This gives us the opportunity to try new things and learn from schools that are on the cutting edge of student-centered creativity. The resources were gathered over many years and from around the world, and we continue to add new ones. We host a 4-day summer institute in New Hampshire that models our philosophy with lots of tools, technology, and software that we continuously evaluate and update: Constructing Modern Knowledge

I keep an online “” account of new resources that you can subscribe to as well!

KD: What does the word “project” mean to you? What does “STEM” mean to you? The terms are used so much by schools that it often is confusing for students, parents, and teachers to know what types of activity these terms should represent.

It’s often the case that terminology wanders from its original intent to come to mean so many things that it nearly means nothing! It’s also the case that schools try to shortcut best practices because there is so little time to focus on anything. For this reason, many “projects” assigned to students are merely long assignments. In many STEM programs, students are offered a few extra classes, but still take math separately from science, and get introduced to technology only as computer literacy.

I believe that the missing key to these is design – that by rethinking student work we must allow iterative design cycles where students are actually thinking about what they are doing. This is much like a painter standing back from their and thinking about what to do next. We rush kids through their work (and it’s never really “their” work) to such an extent that it becomes just a never-ending to do list, made by someone else.

We are actually lucky, I think, that so many kids work so hard on things that aren’t really meaningful. Imagine if they had the opportunity to work on projects that really mattered to them and to the world.

TalkingSTEM interview (part 1)

Part 1 of an interview I did with Koshi Dhingra on her blog, TalkingSTEM:

Conversation with Author of “Invent To Learn”

KD: How did you come to see the value of making, or inventing, as learning?  A little about your background….

My degree is in electrical engineering and I worked in aerospace for many years on the research and development of the GPS satellite navigation system. In that job I saw that the work we were doing had little relation to the “scientific method” as taught in schools. In fact, it was a lot more like my dad’s auto repair shop than it was to school science. After I had children, I became a video game developer and ended up as vice president of a software publishing company that also made educational games and software.

I found that I really enjoyed thinking about how learning happens, went back and got a masters in education, and became the president of an educational non-profit called Generation YES, that combined teaching students technology skills with service-learning. I saw first- hand not only how good young people were with technology, but also how students stepped up when given responsibility.

Several years ago, the Maker Movement started to get more attention world-wide, and I saw it not just as some cool new tools, but as a leading indicator of cultural change, a second industrial revolution, and a magnificent example of how the modern world learns to solve problems and share those solutions with everyone.

My co-author, Gary Stager and I decided that we could help build a bridge for educators and parents to see how this Maker Movement models good learning – exciting, engaging, and relevant learning. So we wrote Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

KD:  How do you see the maker movement connecting to classroom cultures?  How does it speak to Bloom’s revised taxonomy (see diagram below)?

To me, the maker movement is showcasing how learning really happens, and making the words of educational giants like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget come alive. Piaget said, “Knowledge is a consequence of experience.” You can’t “do” learning to a child – they must be active participants in the experience. The maker movement brings us fabulous tools and materials that support all kinds of learning, and this supports a classroom that is vibrant and student-centered. The “get it done” attitude of the maker movement is a great mindset towards learning – that whatever the problem is, we can solve it, by working together and learning whatever we need to know to get it done.
bloomsI’m not a big fan of Bloom’s taxonomy, even the revised taxonomy. I think it’s horribly misused when it’s interpreted as a “ladder” or hierarchy of learning. It’s vague and misleading. I could argue every aspect of the terms and placement of some forms of learning as more complex, therefore superior to others. People also make the mistake of seeing this as a timeline – first the kids memorize things, then they show their understanding, etc. It’s the exact opposite of the kind of “maker” classroom I advocate where the “do” comes first, giving students something to build their learning on.

For example, let’s just take “creating” – supposedly the top of the tree. Why is this at the top? Sometimes when you create something, you then understand it better, not the other way around. You can create things without completely understanding them. In fact, the way I understand learning is that often it involves a deconstruction of previously held beliefs in order to accommodate more complex understandings.

I think that learning is much more iterative and fluid, and frameworks like this serve to constrain understanding how learning works, rather than celebrate its complexity.

KD: What should a parent, who does not have a tech background nor a lot of extra cash to buy expensive machinery or kits, do to go about building an environment where making is valued at home?  A teacher?  

I think that you follow the child’s interests and build upon them. Whenever possible, add complexity to what the child is doing, with conversations that involve prediction, measurement, analysis of any project. Cooking, for example, can become chemistry and mathematics, with authentic results that you can eat! Ask children to teach something to you and learn it together. Try not to say, “I’m so bad at math” or let your own fears become roadblocks to experimenting.

This is a list of parent roles in supporting children’s technological fluency from Stanford research[1]:

  • Teacher: teach new concepts
  • Learning broker: find and set up opportunities, connections, and activities
  • Project collaborator: work together
  • Resource provider: buy tools, books, materials
  • Employer: ask child to do a specific job or fix something
  • Learner: ask child to teach you something
  • Supporter: offer encouragement and advice

KD:  If one did want to buy a couple of high dollar items, which do you think one should start with?

I think that 3D printers have become synonymous with the maker movement, and sometimes divert attention from other technologies that might be a better place to start. Certainly, 3D printers are magical – literally making something out of nothing. And certainly they are getting faster, cheaper, and easier to use. However, unless the parent or teacher is really fascinated and willing to put in a lot of time with this technology, it’s probably not the best first choice.

I would look at microcontrollers like Arduino and Lilypad (for wearable computing). They are endlessly flexible, with a whole world of kits, parts, and communities supporting all kinds of experimentation. They involve programming, which I think is an essential skill for making sense of the world in the 21st century. They also can lead down so many paths, from musical instruments to robots to drones to electronics in clothes and textiles. There are kits and software combinations for all ages, even young children. We have lists of recommended products on our Invent To Learn website.

Part 2 to come!

[1] Barron, B. Martin, C, Takeuchi, L. & Fithian, R. (2009) Parents as learning partners and the development of technological fluency. International Journal of Learning and Media

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

This article appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of EdTech K-12 magazine and online on their website.

How to Course Correct STEM Education to Include Girls

Introduce the real world and change the conversation.

In a perfect world, all people would have equal opportunity to achieve their professional goals. But the reality is not perfect for women in the workforce.

In many science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially in engineering and programming, women are under­represented: While they represent half of all college-educated workers in the U.S., they made up just 28 percent of science and engineering workers in 2010 — an increase from 21 percent in 1993, according to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report.

Trace back down the pipeline to STEM in K–12 and the facts don’t get any cheerier: Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math (even when they get better grades and test scores than boys) and are overlooked for slots in STEM academies and special programs. They may stop seeing themselves as being good at science and math as they move into middle school, where students begin to develop the skills they need for STEM majors and careers.

Girls do have one interesting advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than are boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science tend to get good grades in other subjects too, while boys tend to get good grades in only one area. For boys, that focus may translate into a stronger push toward a career in STEM; if you have fewer choices, you concentrate on making them count.

So when we complain that there is a “leaky pipeline” in K–12 education for girls in STEM courses, we should acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a matter of discrimination or systemic bias. Girls are choosing not to major in STEM subjects for the very sensible reason that they have more options.

But this “choice” is also influenced by the prospect of discrimination down the line.

‘Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you?’

In a study by Girl Scouts of the USA (“Generation STEM”), 57 percent of all girls say that “if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African-American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from “Generation STEM”: “Half of African American girls (compared to 38 percent of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: ‘Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.’ ”)

Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking at best, and lying at worst. The leaky pipeline leads into a leaky bucket that any sane person might choose to avoid.

Of course, we want to fix this — not just give up. That first requires tackling how we talk, then integrating technology and engineering in the appropriate ways at the earliest grade levels possible.

Many schools have found success in helping more girls through STEM courses. We know what works: role models, mentors, encouragement and special opportunities. But schools can do more to make STEM courses more accessible for all students.

Introduce real-world topics, real research, real projects, real tools and tangible technology to STEM subjects. That attracts not only girls but any students who are uninterested in dry textbook science.

Change the Curriculum to Expand Experience

Girls say that science is interesting because it helps people and makes the world a better place. Feed that passion by giving students opportunities to do science that matters, not just study about science.

Finding ways to incorporate conductive paint and e-textiles into an electronics lesson is not pandering to girls but expanding the onboarding experience for STEM to more students across the board.

The facts about gender discrimination are depressing, but that isn’t a reason to hide them from young people. They deserve to know the truth (at the appropriate level). Because guess who can fix it? They can. Girls and boys are our only hope if we’re to change the landscape of opportunity, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.

These problems won’t be fixed by pumping more water into a leaky bucket; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work together to solve them.

While changing deeply embedded culture and established curriculum may seem like an impossible challenge, it’s something that simply has to be done.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Be mindful of your own behavior and try to open learning invitations to all students. In particular, talk with young people about stereotypes and how to overcome them.
  • Address issues of discrimination in your own settings, quickly and fairly. What you do as the adult in the classroom, and in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge and office, matters.
  • Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think?
  • Offer experiences in STEM courses that build on student interests and culture. Find ways to use STEM to solve real problems that young people care about.
  • Don’t talk only to girls about these issues. It’s not a “girls’ problem.” Enlist boys and men in making changes. Use resources like “Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts” from the National Council on Women & Information Technology and adapt for your own setting.

Putting Away the Books to Learn (the education section of  has published an article called Putting Away the Books to Learn by Jackie Ashton.

It starts with the question: “The “maker” movement has swept across schools in California and beyond. Can it fundamentally change K-12 education?”

The article profiles several schools involved in “making” and quotes some folks, including me, about how “making” has the potential to change education. Most of my interview ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. But that’s the way the media cookie crumbles, as they say!

It’s an interesting take on “making” and the article struggles a bit, I think, to situate it in a learning context. Not that I’m surprised or criticizing. It’s the heart of the difficulty of advocating for “maker education” – the examples start to sound like you are cheerleading for any techy type thing that kids put their hands on, whether it’s thoughtful, challenging, academic or not.

Even the title “Putting Away the Books to Learn” is a misinterpretation of the kind of classroom experience I advocate for. In a maker-enabled learning space, books and reference materials (both online and physical) should be one of the most important tools available to students.

For example, at our summer institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge, we bring cases of books to build a library for participants. We believe that this highly-curated library is one of the most important aspects of creating a model maker learning experience. Books can inspire and inform, or sometimes just provide a coffee-break for a tired brain.

Maker education is not an either/or choice between old-fashioned and new-fangled stuff. It’s grounded (hopefully) in ideas about the ways learning really happens inside the learner’s head. Beyond that, there are definitely some technologies that can enhance the quest to teach students about the real world, but to me, the “stuff” should take a backseat to the learning.

  • Can you do “maker” without a 3D printer? Yes
  • Can you do things with a 3D printer that give students access to ideas otherwise nearly impossible? Yes

Both of these can be true, and that may seem confusing. But I think the possibilities inherent in all these seemingly contradictory paths are worth exploring. There is no one model of maker education that is going to work for every learning space and every learner. That should be seen as freedom to be nurtured, not a deficiency.